Policing the Police: Expanding the Conversation

By Connie Kwong Source: Atlanta Black Star


Last week, the Los Angeles Board of Commissioners voted three to one in favor of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s plan to equip the Los Angeles Police Department with body cameras. While police departments in Oakland and San Diego have already adopted this policy, and 20 percent of California police departments use body cameras, the LAPD will now be the largest police force in California and nationwide to use body cameras.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to equip the Los Angeles Police Department with body cameras last December, just weeks after a St. Louis County Grand Jury controversially made the decision to not indict a police officer named Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. While public response to the Ferguson incident was highly polarized, there has nevertheless been a very strong sentiment that law enforcement must be held accountable for its transgressions, just like any other major institutions within the United States. Since the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been widespread attention on, and discussion of, police officers around the country. This surely led Mayor Garcetti to propose his plans for requiring the LAPD to wear body cameras at all times. After all, video footage taken by bystanders during police-civilian altercations has been instrumental in boosting visibility of police brutality.

However, while this policy change demonstrates earnest efforts to hold law enforcement accountable, it must be viewed with nuance, and perhaps, a bit of skepticism. Make no mistake: video footage could certainly make it easier for police to be held accountable for their transgressions. Case study research finds that after body cameras were introduced in February 2012 in Rialto, California, public complaints against officers fell 88 percent, and officers' use of force fell by 60 percent. Nevertheless, the technical advancements of this long-overdue reform are overwhelmingly overshadowed by the bigger problem of racialized police-sanctioned violence against people of color, especially African-Americans. The fact that Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the United States, as well as one of the most ethnically diverse, further underscores the necessity for police reform through increased oversight. Ironically, this is exactly where video footage is limited in what it can accomplish.

The tragedy of Eric Garner is one of the strongest examples demonstrating that point. Despite chilling footage recorded by bystander Ramsey Orta showing Officer Daniel Pantaleo holding Garner in a chokehold and Garner’s repeated cries of “I can’t breathe,” the Grand Jury chose not to indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death. While this should not be taken as a sign that it’s futile to require police to wear body cameras, it’s still too early and difficult to make a strong case that video footage alone has led to dramatic progress in treating the problem of police brutality. The lack of consistent procedure across police departments regarding when body cameras should be turned on and off, when they can be released, and who can view them reflects how the policy needs to be tweaked and refined.

The reality is that police violence is not only a problem of transgressive actions, but also a problem of mentality and attitudes about race. As sociologist Jennifer Dawn Carlson writes,

“On its own, a camera on every officer can never do the hard work of addressing problems of police accountability and use of force. Police cameras alone will not translate into greater accountability as long as departments rely on internal oversight. Cameras won't stop police militarization as long as police agencies apply military tactics to public law enforcement. And cameras by themselves won't repair deep-seated distrust between police and communities of color as long as officers are still trained and rewarded for tactics that, whether unintentional or not, disproportionately target racial minorities.”

Furthermore, a landmark 1980 study by social psychologists found that when white and black sixth-grade students were asked to evaluate pictures of children playfully jostling or threateningly pushing another child, all students — black and white — were more likely to view the actions as mean and threatening when performed by a black student rather than a white student. These findings reflect how much of society’s perception of criminal activity is very literally colored by race. An FBI report found that from 2005 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least two times a week. Moreover, a study by the American Sociological Review finds that police are more likely to deploy against African-American protestors than white protestors.

On April 17, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that the state would implement the nation’s first implicit bias training program for law enforcement agencies to combat racial profiling. This is clearly a strong step forward in reforming the system, but as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck points out, “This is not something you get inoculated against once in your life, and that’s it. This takes constant retraining, constant discussion.” For all our talk of increased visibility and transparency of police officers, the polarized responses to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and more recently, Freddie Gray, clearly indicate that what our nation desperately needs is a more vocal conversation on the relationship between racism and policing.

Law enforcement is an institution whose authority we take for granted for the very reason that it has such authority. But authority has its own flaws, and more importantly, its own prejudices. The heartbreaking reality is that as long as blacks and other racial minorities, suspect or not, are disproportionately the victims of police violence, it’s fallacious to claim that all citizens are equally protected under the due process of the law. Trust is synonymous with transparency, and it is only reasonable that we take the necessary step of requiring police to wear body cameras.

But body cameras alone are not the panacea to the racism and violence that is sadly embedded in our law enforcement culture. The phrase “liberty and justice for all” ultimately means nothing if marginalized communities cannot trust the police to respect and protect them in the first place. Therefore, the success of the LAPD’s reforms will be contingent on holding police officers accountable for not only their actions, but also, their prejudices.